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Editorial: Subtance abuse issue merits an aggressive national effort

Feb. 05, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

'The pain of substance abuse never ends."

That stark assessment came from U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller when asked recently by The Herald-Dispatch about what strategies could be put into play to help reduce substance abuse. It aptly described the consequences for users, their families and their friends when substance abuse takes over someone's life. Multiply that by the millions of people in the United States who abuse drugs and alcohol, and the extent of the problem is brought into perspective.

Just how big is it? One measure might be the number of people who die from overdose deaths. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that was nearly 36,500 people across the nation in 2008, the latest statistics available. Drug overdose deaths now exceed the fatality toll on the nation's roads and highways.

The impact is felt especially hard in West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio, which have drug overdose death rates among the 10 highest in the country. But, as the data show, the problem permeates every section of the nation.

No wonder Rockefeller suggested that drug abuse may now amount to the United States' second most serious issue, behind only the health of the nation's slow-to-recover economy.

Rockefeller, his fellow U.S. senator, Joe Manchin, and U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall -- who form the Huntington area's delegation to Congress -- touched upon strategies and approaches that make sense. But they noted that no one strategy alone will suffice. And making true progress will require the involvement of a multitude of entities.

More resources devoted to treatment would help, no doubt, as would continued prevention efforts such as education about substance abuse's harmful effects. But as Rahall pointed out, education and treatment alone cannot solve the problem.

That's where strategies related to reducing the supply of drugs -- particularly prescription drugs such as opioid pain killers -- that are diverted for non-medical uses play a crucial part. For example, it's only logical to reclassify deadly and often-abused drugs such as hydrocodone so that the rules on prescribing them are stricter, and Manchin is advocating that. Other steps include applying more pressure on pharmaceutical companies to reformulate their medications so they are not so easily abused and changing federal sentencing guidelines so that rogue doctors who essentially run "pill mills" will face harsher consequences.

A key step would be establishing a nationwide, real-time reporting system for prescriptions to combat "doctor shopping" by abusers. Many states have such systems, but sharing the information across borders remains problematical.

And putting a greater onus on doctors and the schools that train them to emphasize more restraint in their prescribing habits could help.

All these strategies beg for a comprehensive national approach. Unfortunately, that's not in place yet, and all three lawmakers noted the obstacles to that happening. An increase in programs, federal mandates, prevention measures and treatment options requires more money. With the current national debate over controlling federal spending, devoting more money to the issue may be a tough sell.

But isn't it time for substance abuse to rise up on the nation's priority list -- and warrant a more unified, aggressive approach from the federal government? The deadly evidence suggests the answer should be "Yes."

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